In this article, the Angry GM answers questions from folks. This question stuck out to me and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for my own games:
I like published settings with rich, detailed histories. Like Eberron. But my players won’t read the sourcebooks. Consequently, they don’t really understand the setting. How do I handle my players’ lack of knowledge of the world their characters inhabit without just constantly dumping exposition on them?
This falls in line rather well with “focusing on the world,” right? You as the GM should have a good grasp on the underlying laws of the world, some of the places, and some of the people that live there. But what about transfering that information to players? How are they to be properly informed without the GM “just constantly dumping exposition on them?”
My quick and dirty method is the title of this post.
The players (and their characters) are tourists.
They are treasure hunters from far away. They are adventurers who seek danger and rewards. They’re not from around here. If they were, they wouldn’t really be interested in their everyday surroundings.
It’s an opportunity for players to explore. They haven’t been here before.
It’s an opportunity for players to meet new people. Every face is a new one.
It’s an opportunity for players to be curious. They don’t have to ask for backgrounds or be subjected to hearing lore if they don’t want it. They don’t have to read the signs or ask a guide. They can just point to something or someone on a list or map and say “Yeah, let’s do this one.”
Then you have genuine interest driving things, not a background that ties them down.
There’s also less pressure on the GM to fabricate details of the players’ backgrounds to help explain what they did before adventuring. If players want to know, they’ll ask. You can talk about it when it comes up.
Otherwise, tourists it is.
Retroactive backgrounds (or the Lando principle)
In Adventure Hour! I wanted to stick to this principle of things not tying players down. Your background is just a title. It doesn’t say how good you were at it, or who you met on that job, or what things came of that job. The only exception is that the items you have now somehow connect to your past. And even that can be painted in very broad strokes.
It makes me think of Han Solo. His background is just “Smuggler.” He gets a companion, ship, blaster, and a large debt out of it. His character just kind of pops into existence when he appears onstage. Imagine Han’s player (we’ll call him Harrison) just showing up in the middle of the session, rolling “Smuggler” and jumping right in. He doesn’t really even know that much about space travel. He just makes up some line about parasecs and off they go.
Later in the adventures, the party is in a tough spot. Harrison asks if there’s anyone he knows that could help them out.
“Oh,” says George, the GM. “Well there’s a planet called Bespin with a place called Cloud City where there’s a gas mining operation there and Ugnaughts and a cyborg named Lobot and oh, Darth Vader might be there, and…”
No, he doesn’t say that.
“Oh,” says George, the GM. “Lando. He’s a buddy of your from a while back.”
Now there’s interest. Questions follow.
“Oh, he gambled with you for the Falcon and lost. You’re still on good terms though.”
That’s the power of a background with the potential to be retroactive.
In every other situation, the players and their characters are just tourists.
Wait until they ask.
Don’t be the guided tour, babbling about dates and histories until the players stumble off into trouble like any child protagonist in a movie. “And there’s the space shuttle that’s fully operational from long ago. No one is allowed on there. Wait, where did Joaquin Phoenix, I mean Max, go? Ah, well moving on.”
Be the reactive tour guide, on the players’ shoulders like angels… or devils. “Oh the space shuttle I mentioned? It might be operational. Who knows. What are you going to do, oh young and curious little Max?”
Design worlds and adventure with lots of potential energy. Treat exposition dumps like spoilers: to be avoided. Instead, offer what’s in front of them and what everyone knows (Perception and Knowledge) and then let them ask questions. Make it sound off the cuff. Don’t give too much away.
Then ask “what do you do?”
Always ask that.